SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) — The supercharged political landscape in the U.S. has grown potentially more perilous for companies ahead of the 2020 presidential election as Goya, a food company with a tremendously loyal following, discovered this week.
The company that makes products used in many Hispanic cuisines but whose following extends well outside of that range, is getting some backlash after its CEO praised President Donald Trump at a White House event.
Goya was founded in Manhattan in 1936 by Don Prudencio Unanue and his wife Carolina, immigrants from Spain. The company calls itself the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States.
Robert Unanue, a grandson and now Goya CEO, spoke at a Rose Garden event announcing a “Hispanic Prosperity Initiative” on Thursday.
“We all truly blessed, at the same time, to have have a leader like President Trump who is a builder,” Unanue said standing at a podium beside Trump.
Almost immediately, #BoycottGoya, #GoyaFoods and #Goyaway began trending on social media platforms with scorn coming seemingly from all directions, including some big political names.
That backlash was answered by those who support Trump, showing how any brand whether they make clothing or, as Goya does, beans, olive oil and adobo, faces potential danger ahead of what is already a highly contentious election.
Those pushing for a boycott of Goya products cited history of derogatory comments from Trump and harsh policies toward Hispanics, most notably, the administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Former presidential candidate Julian Castro was among those to take to Twitter, saying Unanue praised someone who villainizes Goya’s customer base.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said she would learn to make from scratch some of the Latin cuisine that Goya sells.
But the backlash was broad, with people posting videos of Goya products being dumped out or donated.
Unanue appeared on “Fox & Friends” Friday and stood by his words Thursday in the Rose Garden.
“I’m not apologizing for saying — and especially when you’re called by the president of the United States — you’re gonna say, ‘no I’m sorry I’m busy no thank you?,” Unanue said. “I didn’t say that to the Obamas and I didn’t say that to President Trump.”
According to Federal Elections Commission data, Unanue donated $6,000 last year to Republican political groups.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, in an interview on the same show, called the company “the American dream.”
“It’s just a shame that people make everything so politicized, including food,” Conway said.
The potential danger for companies became clear almost from the first day of the Trump administration. A public statement, political donations, or support from an executive can bring a torrent of unwanted publicity, and boycotts, for the company they lead.
In 2017, the CEO Under Armour walked back comments in which he said Trump was “an asset to the country.”
In a full-page advertisement in The Baltimore Sun, where Under Armour is based, CEO Kevin Plank wrote that his choice of words “did not accurately reflect my intent.” He wrote that Under Armour stands for equal rights and job creation and believes “immigration is a source of strength, diversity and innovation for global companies based in America.”
The company also came out publicly against the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Last year, the luxury gym Equinox and indoor cycling studio SoulCycle faced a backlash over a Trump fundraiser.
Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, at the time one of only four African-Americans leading a Fortune 500 company, was the first to resign from Trump’s business councils over the president’s remarks on the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Others quickly followed Frazier’s lead, including the CEOs of Under Armour and Intel. Executives at Walmart and Johnson & Johnson publicly condemned Trump’s remarks, but remained part of those councils until they were disbanded because of the public uproar.
Demographic changes and the massive Black Lives Matter movement are making race a pivotal issue in the upcoming election.
According to the Pew Research Center, 13.3% of eligible voters in the U.S. this year are Latino, a record high.
Trump has been working hard recently to court Latino voters, who could swing the vote in states such as Arizona and Florida. On Wednesday, he welcomed President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the White House with lofty language, calling Mexico a cherished partner. Trump’s tone was in stark contrast from when he kicked off his 2016 presidential campaign by referring to Mexicans as “rapists” and railed against migrants entering the United States illegally.
Many of those that came to Goya’s defense Friday pointed out Goya’s history of philanthropy.
This spring, Goya donated over 300,000 pounds of food, or about 270,000 meals, to food banks and other organizations as part of its pandemic relief effort. The company said it also donated more 20,000 protective masks. Last month, Goya showed up with thousands of pounds of food for families in the Bronx and Harlem who have been affected by COVID-19. It donated food to a public school in Queens.
Goya lists 2,500 products, from seasonings and cooking oils, to beans and other Latin American staples as well as frozen products and snacks. Their offerings are ubiquitous in grocery stores across the U.S., sometimes taking up their own entire aisle.
AP reporter Astrid Galvan contributed to this story from Phoenix.